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Nithari Killings: Truth May Forever Elude Us Thanks to a Deeply Botched Probe

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a result of a flawed probe, writes Anirban Bhattacharyya.

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(Trigger warning: Mentions of child sexual abuse and violence. Reader discretion advised.)

In Noida's Sector 31, behind the two-storey D-5 bungalow, a cricket ball led a curious boy to discover what seemed to be a severed hand in a plastic bag. Alarmed, he reported it to his uncle, who, along with the village elder, approached the police in Sector 26.

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a result of a flawed probe, writes Anirban Bhattacharyya.

The D-5 building – site of the Nithari killing case – in Noida.

(Photo: PTI)

Four officers investigated, claiming the bag contained animal remains, not human flesh. The officers then concealed the 'flesh' with mud, as documented in court papers. This incident unfolded in March 2005 – 21 months before the infamous Nithari case surfaced on 29 December 2006.

Despite these glaring facts in court papers, the public seemed to miss the deeper story, raising questions about the narrative being shaped by those involved.

The Allahabad Court, while acquitting both Moninder Singh Pandher – the owner of D-5 bungalow – and his domestic help Surendra Koli on 16 October 2023, said:

"The investigation otherwise is botched up, and basic norms of collecting evidence have been brazenly violated... without taking due care of probing more serious aspects of possible involvement of organised activity in organ trading."

Let's take a closer look at the investigation.

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The Foul Smell Behind D-5

The Severed Hand of March 2005: Why did the cops not investigate further? Why wasn't Pandher questioned at this point? Because something had happened in 1997, which perhaps held the biggest clue.

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a result of a flawed probe, writes Anirban Bhattacharyya.

Surendra Koli (left) and Moninder Pandher being taken to jail after a CBI court awarded death sentence to them in Nithari killing case on 24 July 2017.

(Photos: PTI)

The Neighbour Doctor: In 1997, Dr Naveen Chaudhary, living next to Pandher in D-6, was questioned in a kidney scam. When Pandher and Koli were arrested, a domestic worker at the neighbour's house, Ramesh Prasad Sharma, claimed that the doctor sat all day and didn't treat patients, owned the house for 12-14 years, and had 24x7 guards posted. The worker also mentioned a foul smell behind D-5.

This raised suspicions about his unique experience and whether he was coached to strengthen the case against Pandher and Koli.

The WCD Report: The Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) set up an expert committee in 2007 to investigate the Nithari case independently.

The report mentioned that the drain behind and at the front of D-5 wasn't deep and always had stagnant water. Therefore, the disposed bodies would have stayed there, creating a foul smell due to decomposition. Which wasn't the case.

There was only one person on the witness stand who spoke about a foul smell emanating during the summer. And that was Ramesh Prasad Sharma.

Another unique observation by the WCD report was that for a corpse to get decomposed, it takes three years, and yet, only bones and skulls were found – even though the murders had been committed as recently as 2006.

Were the bodies chemically decomposed down to the bone before being discarded? If so, why hadn't the forensic team found chemical traces? Or was it again the ghost of illegal medical organ trading?

Now you have sat up, right? Hold on, there’s more..

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The Missing Children of Nithari

Nithari had always nurtured a darker secret.

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a result of a flawed probe, writes Anirban Bhattacharyya.

Sunita Devi, mother of a Nithari killing case victim, irons at a colony in Noida.

(Photo: PTI)

According to an article written by Jagriti Bharti of the Amity Law School (Lucknow) and Anubhav Pandey for ipleaders.in, an abnormally high number of women and children had been reported to be missing as early as 2003 in the village. These incidents predated Koli's arrival as a domestic worker at Pandher's home.

So, the phenomenon of missing children was not something new as far as Nithari was concerned. And most of the missing children vanished from a particular area – the water tank at Sector 31.

So much so that parents warned their children against going there. And all of these children were from lower-class, migrant families.

Poor Migrants: Numerous reports were filed, but the missing kids were poor, their parents could not put pressure or did not have influence, and they were immigrants who did not own their houses and were usually domestic workers, drivers, or daily wage labourers.

Sonia, who had lost her nine-year-old son Sheikh in December 2004, recounts her experience: "When I asked them to register a report, they told me to get out of the police station. They abused me in the worst possible language. They said you people produce so many children and cannot take care of them; some of them are bound to disappear. Having gotten sick of abuse, I stopped going to the police station. I could not take the insult of policemen along with the pain of losing my child."
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The Case of Payal: When Payal went missing, the first place that her father Nand Lal visited was Pandher's house, asking him the whereabouts of Payal. When Pandher told him she was not at D-5, he approached the Noida SSP for help, who helped file a complaint. Even the call records showed that Payal had spoken to Pandher on the day of her disappearance. Then, was Pandher lying? Pandher informed the police that he was in Chandigarh that day (which was true) to complete the final rites of his father.

When he was questioned further, the truth emerged: Payal was a sex worker. Suddenly, the reason for Nand Lal's desperation seemed to be based more on greed and money than paternal and emotional.

The Strange Case of 'Arrest One and Get One Free': When Koli was picked up, he supposedly confessed to killing Payal and chopping up her body. Then why was Pandher arrested as well? At this point in the investigation, there was no proof to tie Pandher to the crimes. There are neither confessions nor any mention by Koli of Pandher being an accomplice.

Was this a case of a man being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was it media overkill for a juicy story that pushed the police to arrest Pandher?

The image of Pandher was that of a drinker, a womaniser, and someone who liked sex workers. But that is a far cry from being a murderer, cannibal, and burier of bodies.

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a result of a flawed probe, writes Anirban Bhattacharyya.

Sunita Devi and her husband Jhabbu Lal lost their minor daughter in the Nithari serial killings.

(Photo: PTI)

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Searches, Confessions, and Evidence

The Scene of Crime Compromised: When the skeletons were being dug out from behind D-5, the non-stop barrage of Breaking News got the country glued to their TV sets, but further incensed the villagers of Nithari as they realised that their last vestiges of hope in finding their children alive had been smashed.

The crowd went berserk as hundreds of people trashed D-5 – breaking the car in the driveway, smashing air conditioners and windows, and whatever they could lay their hands on – both as a target and as a weapon. The police had no control over the crowd. The crime scene was completely compromised. And yet, in the next few days, 'evidence' would keep popping up at D-5 as per information, confessions, and searches – and surprisingly, in complete disregard for protocol or law, these would be accepted and marked as official evidence.

Koli would be brought back days later and would point to a water tank on the roof and say, "You will find a knife there." Lo and behold, the knife became Exhibit Ka-24!

The Role of the Press & Leaked News: The TV channels went ballistic in their efforts to grab eyeballs and went on air without validating the facts.

So, there were reports about how the investigating team seized porn and erotic magazines, along with a computer connected to a webcam from D-5, which immediately gave the coverage a tinge of an international child pornography racket. Another news channel reported about the police recovering photographs of Pandher with nude children and foreigners from his laptop.

It was alleged that he supplied such pictures abroad and that he was part of the international paedophilia nexus.

Who was giving such information to the press? Was it the police – so that it could all fit into a narrative? Or were these just overexcited journalists fabricating the news by themselves?
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Identifying the Skeletons

The Skeletons Parade: Dr Sanjeev Lalwani (AIIMS, New Delhi) received a letter from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), requesting that all the skeletons and bones that had been recovered from D-5 be shown to Koli in the absence of police officers and CBI officers to maintain the neutrality of the event in the eyes of the law. Also, Dr Lalwani requested that Koli be given a cadaver so that it could be ascertained as to how he used to cut the body into pieces.

Dr Lalwani arranged all the bones as per their measurements. There were 19 sets of bones.

4 February 2007: At 11 am, Koli was brought in. To warm things up, there was a block of black-brown hair, which was shown to Koli. He said that it belonged to Payal. It seems Koli is Sherlock's baap that he can identify the person from a tuft of hair.

Koli was then shown a cadaver and asked to show how he used to cut it. Koli used a piece of chalk to make marks on separate parts of the body. For about an hour and a half, Koli detailed his surgical expertise to the doctors present in the room. The report was sealed, but his signature was not taken.

Was Koli Beaten Up? When the video of him identifying the skeletons emerged, a crucial observation was made. Why were Koli's hands wrapped in cloth? Was it to hide injuries that had been inflicted on him by the police? Was it a cover-up of CBI's investigation brutality? And to add salt to the suspicion, when the judge raised the question of whether Koli had been medically examined before the session, the answer was in the negative.

This was further fuelled by insider rumours, which stated that when Koli had been brought in, his right hand was broken from the shoulder.

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The Confession

The Video Statement: For 60 days, the CBI investigated but found only circumstantial evidence, which they knitted to the initial confession made by Koli when the police arrested him. But suddenly, in February 2007, the CBI applied to the magistrate, informing him about Koli wanting to record his confession on video.

Finally, on 1 March 2007, Koli recorded the infamous video confession in front of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, which would be the basis on which he would eventually be convicted and sentenced to death. This would become the Bible for convicting Koli and Pandher. Koli would talk about cutting and eating his victims in this video. But nowhere did he implicate Pandher in the video as an accomplice – then why was Pandher also treated as a murderer like Koli and received death sentences?

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a result of a flawed probe, writes Anirban Bhattacharyya.

Mohinder Singh Pandher outside the CBI court in Ghaziabad, on 22 July 2017.

(Photo: PTI)

Many who have studied the case thoroughly call the video confession "a well-tutored performance" by Koli. What makes this more bone-chilling is the fact that Koli himself has gone on record to say that he was tortured, then repeatedly showed the pictures of the girls, and even told the police how he supposedly killed these girls. And that is what emerged in the confessional.

Koli said in an interview,

"When the Uttar Pradesh police arrested me, they made me see these photos again and again and told me the names of these people. For each photograph, they told me the name, the time, the manner, etc. But I don't know about the time, even now. They had told me all this but I have forgotten."

When Koli was given five minutes of access to a legal aid lawyer in the open court, he once again reiterated that his confession had come under duress. In his letter to the apex court, Koli mentioned that the magistrate failed to notice the telltale signs of torture – his fingernails and toenails were missing. And as Koli claims, he was not medically examined before or after the confessional statement to determine his physical condition.

Section 24 of the Indian Evidence Act bars a confession if it appears to have been caused by threat, inducement, or promise. It also states that the legal requirement for the admissibility of a confession is that it has to be a voluntary admission of guilt. But in this case, the confession itself stated that Koli was tortured and tutored. And yet, this video confession was the bedrock on which the death sentences were given to him.

More importantly, the statement was taken down in English – a language Koli does not understand – and the stenographer was not examined in court.

The question is: was Koli innocent, or was he a criminal mastermind who was playing the predictable sympathy card and playing with our heads?
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The signing of a blank sheet: At the time of their arrest, Pandher and Koli had supposedly made signed confessions. When the CBI did not include Pandher's confession, Tehelka challenged it. The statement of Pandher supposedly said that he used to pay Payal Rs 2,500 per night, and she had begun to blackmail him; therefore, he decided it was time to get rid of her. And in which, he supposedly confessed that he had asked Koli to kill her.

So, the question raised by the media was: why did the CBI not include this crucial piece of evidence – Pandher's supposed confession – which would have implicated Pandher in the murder of Payal? And this is where the shoddy investigation of the police and their hurried approach to framing and closing the case come into question.

Pandher had told his son Karan Deep the day after his arrest that he had been forced to sign on two blank pages and that he knew he would be framed. But this could have been dismissed as being a crock full of shit – the usual "I am being framed" cry of any criminal. But!

And here comes the twist! Arun Kumar, the CBI Joint Director, admits in an interview with filmmaker Ram Devineni in Netflix's ‘The Karma Killings', "We spoke to the cops, and they told us that he (Pandher) hadn't confessed. This confession has no evidentiary value. The officers presumed he was guilty and wrote the confession. No officer has said that he confessed in front of him." Why were the police writing the confession when Pandher had not confessed?

That is why the CBI did not take the confessions into cognisance, as they assumed these confessions were crafted post facto by the police to fit a narrative.

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a result of a flawed probe, writes Anirban Bhattacharyya.

Rajwati who lost their minor daughter in the Nithari serial killings, at her shop in Noida.

(Photo: PTI)

The Rimpa Haldar Case: On 13 February 2009, both Pandher and Koli were found guilty in the 8 February 2005 murder of Rimpa Haldar by a special session court in Ghaziabad. The next day, the court gave both of them the death sentence and classified the case as "rarest of rare." Devraj Singh, the lawyer for Pandher, presented two crucial pieces of evidence in his defence: Pandher's passport and his call records.

Rimpa Haldar went missing on 8 February 2005. Pandher had left for Australia on 22 January and returned to India only on 27 February 2005. So there was no way that Pandher could have knowledge of the crime or could have been a part of it, as his mobile records clearly showed he was in Australia, and Pandher's passport had the Entry and Exit Immigration Stamp. Koli's death sentence was confirmed, but Pandher was acquitted in this case.

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The Bodies Don't Add Up

The Missing Torsos: In the WCD report, Dr Vinod Kumar, MD, the Chief Medical Superintendent, Noida, mentioned that the bodies were cut with surgical precision, that the middle part of all bodies (torsos) was missing, and that the CBI should investigate the motive of organ trafficking. How could Koli cut with surgical precision when he was using a kitchen knife, why were there no telltale signs on the bones? What the police dug up were skulls and limbs – there were no spines or ribcages recovered! Just skulls and limbs! Were these the remains of illicit human organ trafficking victims, where the entire torso was harvested and the limbs thrown away?

This angle was shut out until 16 October 2023, when the Allahabad bench once again mentioned it. Which once again takes us back to D-6. Was the police aware of what was going on and, therefore, ignored the severed hand? Was there a nexus of organ trafficking like the Allahabad bench has suggested?

Extra Bodies: Out of the 19 skeletons recovered, Koli, in his confession, supposedly confessed to killing 16. Then who killed the other three victims, whose body parts were recovered? Why doesn't the math add up?

The Mystery of the 11: When the skeletons were recovered, they were sent off for DNA tests. According to the prosecution, they collected DNA samples from 18 families whose family members had gone missing.

When the DNA samples of these 18 families were compared with the DNA samples extracted from the 19 bodies, only 8 matched. Eleven bodies remained unidentified. Whose were they? How is it that, though Koli's confession mentions 16 victims – all living in Nithari – 11 bodies remained unidentified and their DNA did not match the DNA taken from the families whose children had gone missing? Where are the family members of these 11 victims whose bodies have remained unidentified? Who are they? Where did they come from?

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This botched investigation almost led to the hanging of Koli on 8 September 2014. His lawyers managed to get a stay order just three hours before he was due to be hung.

Pandher has been acquitted and set free. Koli's death sentences have been absolved, but he will serve life imprisonment for a case connected to Nithari.

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a result of a flawed probe, writes Anirban Bhattacharyya.

Advocate Manisha Bhandari speaks to the media after Allahabad High Court acquitted both Surendra Koli and Mohinder Pandher in the infamous Nithari serial killings case in Noida for lack of evidence, in Prayagraj, on 16 October 2023.

(Photo: PTI)

The tragedy lies in the ambiguity of guilt or innocence – a consequence of a flawed investigative process. Much like the Talwar case, the truth may forever elude us.

(Anirban Bhattacharyya is a bestselling author. He is the Creator-Producer-Writer of the hit TV show Savdhaan India, and the Producer of Crime Patrol. He has written about the Nithari case in The Deadly Dozen: India’s Most Notorious Serial Killers. His other books include India’s Money Heist: The Chelembra Bank Robbery and The Hills Are Burning. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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